SAS Forum Belux 2015 and the formula behind its success: a closing interview with Geert Van Peteghem, Managing Director at SAS BeLux

At the SAS Forum last week we spoke to Geert Van Peteghem, Managing Director at SAS Belux to find out how they manage to uphold and even increase the SAS Forum's success, year after year.

Why did SAS pick a new direction for this year’s edition of the SAS Forum?

Now that markets are evolving faster than ever and everything is connected to everything else, companies have to look outside a lot more if they want to survive. They need to collaborate and share more than ever before. That’s why open innovation and co-creation are increasingly popular. That’s also why, after 10 successful years, we wanted to move on to an outside-in approach: enriching the content about our own products, services, customers and partners – where the SAS Forum’s focus used to lie – by introducing an increased external perspective. We gave a more prominent role to external partners like Accenture Digital and Deloitte, and we attracted more external thought leaders relevant to our story. Opinion leaders David Shing of AOL or Philippe Van Impe of the Brussels Data Science Community are just some examples. Of course, there were still customer cases and SAS-owned presentation, but I think we managed to end up with a great balance between both.

The fact that nearly 1000 executives registered for this edition, shows that we were on the right track.

Why the specific choice for the theme `Accelerating Innovation with Big Analytics’?

We wanted to move beyond the hype of Big Data with real cases and real applications. SAS has been involved in analytics for almost 40 years now, and all that time we have been extracting value from data. Our company has been extracting intelligence from Big Data for a very long time, though it was called differently then. What has evolved is that the data comes in a lot more formats than before, not just structured but unstructured as well, and that the technology behind it is now a lot more affordable.

What has also changed is that, as thought leader Peter Hinssen likes to put it, information used to be static, like water in a reservoir or a pond. All of a sudden, we have entered the era of networks where information has started to flow. It has become a river. That is why the possibilities of innovating with data and creating new business models – like an Uber or an AirBnB did – are simply mind-blowing. Data-driven innovation is a topic on the menu of every company, regardless of how far they have evolved in analytics.

It might be “on the menu” for a lot of companies, but does it mean they are “ordering” it too? Many believe that Belgian companies still have a long way to go in Big Data.

I used to think, along with many `non-believers’ that Belgium was lagging behind on the Big Data maturity curve. Yet since my time at SAS I see that a lot of companies are already leveraging it and experimenting with it. People tend to forget that a project is not merely a Big Data project because it involves petabytes of data, it is about intelligently mining valuable sources of unstructured information as well.

Several pharmaceutical and banking companies are, for instance, performing sentiment and text analysis to see what is ‘living’ in the market. Some are even innovating and changing their business models accordingly. Our government, for its part, is using Big Data – very successfully, I might add – to combat fraud.

Why the 4 subthemes: Internet of Things (IoT), Digital Society, Data Science and Data Management?

We wanted to offer a broad area of themes – about organisations, human roles, society and technology – so that we could appeal to a diverse public of more general profiles as well as more specialised ones like marketing and more technical ones.

Data Management was an important one, because you simple cannot perform smart analytics adequately if your data is `garbage’. Data is the foundation of every insight, and we wanted to give it the attention it deserves now that everyone is obsessing over Big Data and advanced analytics. The Internet of Things was one of the subjects with which we wanted to open up the content, involving innovative industries like Healthcare, Life Science or manufacturing.

We also tapped the subject of Data Science, as the role of analysts is changing fast and wanted to raise awareness about this. Not just in companies, but in the world of academics as well. Because there is a shortage of data scientists, which will only increase if nothing changes. As for the Digital Society track: it needs no explanation how everything is increasingly connected and how this poses both threats and opportunities for companies.

SAS Forum is the biggest analytics conference in Belgium. What’s the secret for this success?

I think it has to do with focus. We are one of the few players which has been involved in analytics as long as we have. Like I said: we’ve been around for almost 40 years, 25 of which in Belgium where we have more than 360 customers. Most competitors in the market started a lot later with analytics, and often by buying other smaller players. We, on the other hand, have been living and breathing data and analytics for almost half a century. We have also always had a very holistic approach: starting with the basics of data management and moving on via decision management or supply chain intelligence to the most advanced analytics. On top of that, we have never been afraid to take calculated risks and experiment with innovation. It’s that combination that makes us so strong. I think that this company philosophy radiates unto the forum and is why it has always been such a success.

What were your highlights of this year’s SAS Forum?

I always love the social energy at the forum. This year was no different: I met many interesting people with whom I had inspiring conversations. I love that our event is big enough to allow people to meet a lot of new peers, yet still humble enough to keep everyone approachable.

Which message did you want to deliver to those who visited the SAS Forum? What would you want them to remember?

I would want the visitors to look beyond the dangers and threats that come with digital disruption and see the possibilities. I will be a happy man if everyone brings home 2 new ideas which they plan to apply in their organisation. I hope that we have shifted their perspective a little, for the better.

Last, but not least, I want to thank the entire SAS team and our business partners who were involved in creating and promoting this forum: it is thanks to them that it was such a big success.